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dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT)

"If you understand the life of captive dolphins, you also begin to see the dolphin show with all its clowning around in another way...It's abusive. When we understand that the dolphins are doing this because it's their only way of staying alive, we see it clearly for what it is: dominance. We're making dolphins do silly things they would never do in nature, because we're amused by dominating helpless members of another species. The worst part is that it teaches children that it's okay to mock and disrespect one of nature's most fabulous of beings." --Richard O'Barry, trainer of Flipper

Dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) involves swimming in a tank with dolphins in order to treat some mental or physical disorder. DAT is especially popular with parents who believe it can have a significant positive impact on the "cognitive, physical, or social-emotional behaviors" of their disabled children (Humphries 2003). In 2003, a typical program cost $2,600 for five 40-minute sessions. Humphries provides a description of the procedure:

The therapy typically occurs in marine parks and dolphinariums as part of programs that allow people to swim with dolphins. Children receiving DAT go through focused one-on-one sessions of individualized activities with a therapist (e.g., a speech, occupational, or physical therapist depending on the child's disability) where interactions with dolphins follow a child's correct cognitive, physical, or social-emotional response.

Though there are DAT programs throughout the world, there is very little evidence that swimming with dolphins is anything more than a gimmick (Marino and Lilienfeld 1998; Lilienfeld. Lynn, and Lohr 2002). As far as I know, there has been only one randomized controlled DAT experiment whose results have been published in a peer-reviewed journal (British Medical Journal, November 26, 2005). The results were positive but the study sample was small (25 participants completed the study) and the length of the study very short (two weeks of therapy for depressed patients). It remains to be seen whether the effects of DAT on mild to moderately depressed people are lasting and can be replicated. If you ask the media, the results are already in. (A Google search found dozens of news stories based on this very preliminary research with headlines ranging from "Swimming with dolphins can relieve depression" to "A dolphin at bay keeps the blues away.") It also remains to be seen whether these researchers can demonstrate that dolphin therapy is significantly better than other animal therapies that use domesticated animals.

This questionable therapy can also be dangerous. As with other wild animals who are captured and whose food is then provided for them (provisioning), tanked dolphins can become aggressive and ram or bite people (Samuels and Spradlin 1995; Frohoff and Packard 1995; Webster et al. 1998). There is also the risk of bacterial, viral, or fungal infection (Buck and Schroeder 1990).* copyright unknown

The studies that have been published in support of DAT have hitherto been practice-based rather than controlled and are seriously flawed. For example, D. E. Nathanson and some associates have done several studies that are often cited as support for the effectiveness of DAT. These studies lack controls, however, "making it impossible to determine whether their results were due to the specific effects of DAT or to a host of potentially confounding factors" (Marino and Lilienfeld 1998). Other flaws in the work of Nathanson et al. are cited by Marino and Lilienfeld:

When comparing subjects' responses with dolphins versus favorite toys the two conditions took place at entirely different facilities: The Dolphin Research Centre versus a local motel, resulting in a complete confounding of treatment condition with setting.

Behaviors that might have worsened were never systematically assessed or analyzed.

Of 137 questionnaires sent out to parents only 52% were returned. Were the other 48% dissatisfied customers?

Humphries (2003) evaluated six studies and could not find that the data support "the notion that using interactions with dolphins is any more effective than other reinforcers for improving child learning or social-emotional development."

After reviewing more than twenty years of research, much of it promoting the effectiveness of DAT, Dr. Karsten Brensing (2005) concluded: "There is still no proof that DAT is more successful than other animal assisted therapies."

Why is the therapy so widespread, then? The media may share some of the blame for not being critical of the studies that have been put forth regarding just about anything dealing with dolphins. As Brensing (2005) notes, it is hard not to think there is something to this therapy when one considers the following:

DAT has been employed for about 20 years to help mentally and physically disabled or terminally ill people. Since 1982 there has been a number of publications about dolphin-assisted therapy by several psychologists: The first piece of research was a case study in which dolphins were used to motivate an autistic child to communicate (Smith 1981). A further experiment indicated that children learned two to ten times faster and with greater retention when working with dolphins (Nathanson 1989). Also significant improvements in hierarchical cognitive responses occurred when interacting with dolphins in mentally disabled children (Nathanson & de Faria 1993). An improvement of the social situation in families with disabled children could also be observed (Voorhees 1995). Analysis of EEG showed that interaction with dolphins has a relaxing influence on humans (Cole 1996; Birch 1997). Effectiveness of short-term (Nathanson, de Castro & McMahon 1997) and long-term (Nathanson 1998) dolphin-assisted therapy for children with severe disabilities was presented. Based on a study with approximately 1500 patients, a positive influence on child's autonomic homeostasis and psychoemotional status could be observed (Lukina 1999). Furthermore, the presence of the dolphins seemed to alleviate the pain atopic dermatitis patients experienced while bathing in seawater. It could be shown that the skin condition improved dramatically, and immunologically, while serum IL-8 levels decreased (Iikura et al. 2001). A reduction of anxiety in organized tourists swimming groups in the wild was also observed (Webb and Drummond 2001). [See Brensing for the full titles of these references.]

Any positive social effects of DAT may be attributed to the effects of socializing, such as increasing trust or responsibility. Positive healing effects may be attributed to many factors from salt water to the placebo effect to subjective validation. Evidence that swimming with dolphins, rather than some other factor, accounts for the satisfied customers, has not been produced in all the years of research on the subject.

Despite the lack of evidence from adequately controlled studies that swimming with dolphins is a particularly effective therapy, several hypotheses have been proposed to explain how DAT works. One guess is that dolphins emit healing energy vibrations. Rosemary Angelis, a Psychic Artist and Vibrational Energy Facilitator, claims she can channel dolphin energy and that if one places a palm over a picture of a dolphin that she's drawn one can "receive the sensation of their loving healing energies." This method would at least avoid the cruelty of capturing and tanking dolphins for human purposes.

Another speculation is that the ultrasound from the echolocation clicks of dolphins does the healing by stimulating the endocrine system.

Birch and Cole showed that subjects’ brain waves change significantly in frequency and amplitude after swimming with dolphins compared to the measurements before the swimming. There were no changes in the control group that swam without dolphins. They presented this “idea” at a conference in 1996 and since then, the public seems to want to believe this as a fact. (Brensing)

However, Brensing and associates have studied this issue and concluded that

... even if the dolphin produced ultrasound continuously with a maximum power of 230 dB, the application time of 10 seconds per patient is not long enough to be comparable to therapeutic ultrasound in human medicine. Moreover, it seems to be practically impossible that a dolphin can produce ultrasound over several minutes with the maximum power directed to one certain patient. If this were indeed to occur, there would be a serious risk that the ultrasound could also damage the biological tissue (Brensing et al. 2003).

In any case, if ultrasound is the healing factor, why not use ultrasound therapy?

Two British researchers speculate that the "echolocation system, the aesthetic value, and the emotions raised by the interaction with dolphins may explain the mammals' healing properties."*

One of the pioneers in the promotion of human-dolphin interaction was John Lilly, M.D., who was also a pioneer in LSD self-experimentation and sensory deprivation research. Lilly believed that he was in psychic contact with aliens who guided him to his work with dolphins. He considered dolphins to be psychic conduits between aliens and humans.* There is little reason to accept Lilly's psychic or psychotic musings.

Despite the lack of properly controlled experiments, DAT is a popular worldwide phenomenon that is virtually unregulated. One group, the Upledger Foundation, is uniting it own special brand of quackery—craniosacral therapy—with DAT. They're charging $4,500 for a 4-day program and they will probably attract many desperate parents who will heed their appeal for children "with diagnoses ranging from cerebral palsy to traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries and chronic pain."

If there were not so many marine parks and dolphinariums, there would not be so much interest in DAT. It is difficult not to be attracted to these sea creatures with the frozen smiles, but humans are deluding themselves if they think they know what it is like to be a dolphin. In any case, dolphins are wild animals and using them for our amusement or imagined well being seems inhumane and unjustified. (Dr. Betsy Smith, one of the pioneers of DAT for autistic children, quit her research with captive dolphins for ethical reasons.) It is touching that so many people have their emotions aroused and stimulated by swimming with dolphins, but it stretches the edges of credulity to think that these beautiful creatures desire the same thing we do: our good health and well being.

further reading

books and articles

Antonioli, Christian and Michael A. Reveley. "Randomised controlled trial of animal facilitated therapy with dolphins in the treatment of depression." British Medical Journal, November 26, 2005.

Brensing, Karsten. (2005). Expert Statement on "Swim With The Dolphin Programs And Dolphin-Assisted Therapy."

Brensing, Karsten, K. Linke,  and D.Todt. (2003). "Can dolphins heal by ultrasound?" Journal of Theoretical Biology, 225 (1): 99-105.

Buck, C. D., and J. P. Schroeder. (1990). "Public Health Significance of Marine Mammal Diseases," in Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine: Health, Disease, and Rehabilitation, ed. L.A. Dierauf, pp. 163-173, CRC Press, Cleveland, OH. (A review of reported cases of humans infected with micro-organisms acquired from direct contact with various marine mammals is presented.)

Frohoff, T. G. and J. M. Packard. (1995). "Interactions between humans and free-ranging and captive bottlenose dolphins." Anthrozoös 8(1):44-54.

Humphries,Tracy L.  Ph.D. (2003). "Effectiveness of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy as a Behavioral Intervention for Young Children with Disabilities"

Lilienfeld, S., Lynn, S., & Lohr, J. (2002). Science and pseudoscience in clinical psychology. New York: Guilford Press.

Lilly, John. (1996). The Scientist: A Metaphysical Autobiography. Ronan Publishing.

Marino, L. and S. Lilienfeld (1998). "Dolphin-assisted therapy: flawed data, flawed conclusions." Anthrozoos, 11(4), 194-200.

Samuels A. and T. Spradlin.(1995). "Quantitative behavioural study of bottlenose dolphins in swim-with-dolphin programs in the United States." Marine Mammal Science 11(4):520-544.

Smith, Betsy A. (1996). Dolphin Assisted Therapy. Tokyo: Kodansha Publishers.

Webster, L. S., D. T. Neil, and C. A. Madden. (1998). "Dolphin-initiated inter- and intra-specific contact and aggression during provisioning at Tangalooma." Special Topic report, Department of Geographical Sciences and Planning and School of Marine Science, The University of Queensland.


Therapeutic & Other Hoaxes: How They Hurt People

Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work by Barry L. Beyerstein

Social and judgmental biases that make inert treatments seem to work. by Barry L. Beyerstein

Marine mammals and disease

AquaThought Foundation

Cetacean Society International Whales Alive! Vol. VII No. 2 April 1998 What About Dolphin Assisted Therapy? by William Rossiter, CSI President

Upledger Foundation

The Upledger Institute

James Randi on John Upledger


Dolphin healing

Last updated 27-Oct-2015

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